Wigan return to their best

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The Independent Online
Rugby League

DAVE HADFIELD

Wigan 38 Leeds 18

Even a machine as powerful as Wigan sometimes needs a little fine-tuning.

Such a case arose last month when their coach, Graeme West, decided that two of his backs, Gary Connolly and Kris Radlinski, were, as he puts it, "going ordinary".

Leeds will wish, after a Regal Trophy semi-final that was more clear- cut than it looks from its score, that West had not found such a simple but effective answer as swapping their positions.

At Central Park on Saturday, Radlinski played admirably at centre, but Connolly was nothing short of glorious at full-back. They both played sterling roles in the strong defensive effort that gradually put Wigan on top in the first 20 minutes of what still looked like a contest.

Radlinski scored one of the three tries between the 20th and 29th minutes that set Wigan on the way to the final against St Helens at Huddersfield on Saturday, but it was Connolly who really put Leeds through the shredder.

It is hard now to recollect that, only a couple of months ago, he was recovering from a bout of pneumonia that seemed likely to debilitate him for most of the season.

But he is a deceptive player in every respect. Connolly might have the look of a slightly dissolute choirboy, but he has the strength and constitution of an ox.

Similarly, and because there is so little obvious effort, he does not immediately impress as particularly fast, but the way he raced away for the second of his tries showed balanced, deadly acceleration that virtually nobody in the code can match.

The first hour of the game showed Wigan at something like their awesome best, making hardly any mistakes with the ball and pouncing ruthlessly on all Leeds' errors.

Apart from Connolly and Radlinski, the scorer of their first try, Martin Hall, was a constant presence at the heart of their best work, as, inevitably, was Shaun Edwards. With Scott Quinnell doing more than his share of destructive running to spearhead the Wigan pack, Leeds simply could not live with them and trailed by 32 points - with the threat of a lot more to come - after 50 minutes.

The Leeds coach, Dean Bell, a major contributor to so many of Wigan's achievements during his eight years as a player at the club, was now on the receiving end, starting not just to appreciate how all their victims have felt, but also having an inkling of the nausea that descended on Brian Johnson as St Helens put 80 points past Warrington in the first semi-final on Thursday.

Leeds saved his peace of mind by emerging from a hopeless situation with evidence that they are developing better fighting qualities.

Even with so much going wrong around them, young players like Adrian Morley and more experienced ones like Neil Harmon maintained their efforts, while both substitutes, Harvey Howard and - after the nightmare replacement of Shaw for Forshaw - Mick Shaw, improved matters when they came on.

No, there is no need for Bell to resign just yet.

Wigan: Connolly; Robinson, Tuigamala, Radlinski, Offiah; Paul, Edwards; Skerrett (Dermott, h-t), Hall, O'Connor (Smyth, 71), Quinnell, Cassidy, Haughton.

Leeds: Holroyd; Fallon, Cummins, Innes, Golden; Mann, Schofield; Harmon (McDermott, 66), Lowes, McDermott (Howard, 30), Morley, Field, Forshaw (Shaw, 30).

Referee: S Cummings (Widnes).

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